A loosely concatenated novel in which Darling, the main character and narrator of the story, moves from her traditional life in Zimbabwe to a much less traditional one in the States.
For Darling, life in Zimbabwe is both difficult and distressing. Her wonderfully named friends include Chipo, Bastard, Godknows and Sbho, and she also has a maternal figured called Mother of Bones. The most pathetic of Darling’s friends is Chipo, who’s been impregnated by her own grandfather and who undergoes a brutal abortion. The friends have little to do but go on adventures that involve stealing guavas in more affluent neighborhoods than the one they come from (disjunctively named “Paradise”), an act that carries its own punishment since the constipation they experience afterward is almost unbearable. Violence and tragedy become a casual and expected part of their lives. In one harrowing scene, their “gang” attacks a white-owned farm and both humiliates and brutalizes the owners. Also, after a long period of absence and neglect, Darling’s father returns, suffering from AIDS. Spiritual sustenance is rare and comes in the form of an evangelist with the unlikely but ripe name of Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro. Eventually, and rather abruptly, Darling moves from the heat and dirt of Zimbabwe to live with her Aunt Fostalina and Uncle Kojo in the American Midwest, a place that seems so unlike her vision of America that it feels unreal. In America, Darling must put up with teasing that verges on abuse and is eager to return to Zimbabwe, for her aunt is working two jobs to pay for a house in one of the very suburbs that Darling and her friends used to invade.
Bulawayo crafts a moving and open-eyed coming-of-age story.
This soulful debut unpacks a family enigma involving a wandering daughter, a homeless father and their tenuous family ties.
The title might promise another light romantic romp about a footloose young woman in her late 20s. However, English newcomer Butler has greater gravitas in mind. The top 10 lists strewn throughout point to increasingly somber subjects: a mother’s early death, infidelity, a father’s death from cancer, and elder sisters who are both fervent and ambivalent in their affection for their much younger sibling, protagonist Alice. Summoned home from Mongolia to the bedside of Malcolm, her dying father, Alice is also forced to revisit London, the site of a traumatic rupture with her Indian lover, Kal, whose family wants to arrange a marriage for him. After Malcolm’s passing, sisters Tilly and Cee hint at what Alice has suspected since her mother’s death when she was 4 years old: She is viewed as an interloper in the only family she has ever known. Meanwhile, in alternating sections, Daniel, a homeless man, scours London for the daughter he fathered during a long-ago affair but has never met. Daniel’s plight stems both from the disastrous legacy of his gambler father and from an auto accident that bankrupted him. All he knows is that the woman he is searching for might have red hair, like her mother, and is named Alice. Delicately, through the accretion of telling details, the reader learns that Daniel’s Alice and our heroine are one and the same, but Alice thinks her father has just died. When, while helping another destitute man reconnect with his lost child, Daniel happens across Malcolm’s obituary, complete with relatives’ names and the location of memorial services, he realizes his quest may soon be fulfilled if he has the courage to gamble. Improbably but convincingly, his initial diffident overtures to Alice take the form of mini art installations. Spare language and an atmosphere of foreboding will keep readers on tenterhooks.
A subversively charming debut about a group of happily imperfect New Yorkers from Dublin-based Casey, wife of novelist Joseph O'Connor.
The novel is bookended by Lucy’s story: After the financial crash, Lucy, Richard and their two small boys are forced out of their posh London lives and move to Manhattan, where Richard makes due at a reduced salary, and they take over the apartment he kept for business. Lucy learns she’s much nicer away from all the haves, and she discovers she’s actually in love with her very kind husband. Lucy’s new friend Julia, meanwhile, has a dilemma: Can she, a high-powered screenwriter, go on with a flaky yoga instructor? She thinks not, and so, shockingly, she leaves her husband, Kristian, and their children and has a little nervous breakdown, followed by a lot of career advancement. Meanwhile, Julia’s best friend Christy (her husband, Vaughn, is a rich and powerful senior citizen) is learning, after the nanny’s abrupt departure, that she likes taking care of her twin girls—especially when the dashing, fun-loving Irish doorman is with them. When Christy’s 40-year-old stepdaughter Lianne insists Christy accompany her to an “equine assisted learning” retreat, Christy invites Julia, who invites Lucy (Christy is a bit jealous of this), and then Robyn finds her way in (although she’s already part of the group in a way, having had affairs with both Vaughn and Kristian). The trip is a disaster for spoiled Lianne, but Robyn decides she’s had it with Ryan, whose promising literary debut has been followed by years of Robyn slaving away at a mattress showroom for his art. Each chapter feels like a well-composed short story, and the collected whole is fresh and bright with characters that defy expectations.
Deep Thoughts creator Handey (What I’d Say to the Martians, 2008, etc.) pens his first novel, an absurd adventure set in Hawaii.
The unreliable narrator is Slurps (he picked the nickname). He’s clueless, inappropriate, delusional, dim: an all-around misguided, comedic nightmare. Among his life goals: to someday throw a hand grenade. “Maybe I’ll get to do that in Heaven,” he muses. As the book opens, Slurps and his friend Don book a vacation to Hawaii (a “mysterious place” Slurps has never heard of) to get away from it all—in Don’s case, from an ex-wife; in Slurps’ case, from violent men to whom he owes money. After receiving a Hawaiian “treasure map” from their travel agent showing the way to a valuable relic called the Golden Monkey, the two decide to steal the object. Before they depart for the islands, Slurps visits Uncle Lou, an ailing treasure hunter who, upon learning of Slurps’ plan to steal the Golden Monkey, drugs Slurps and then implants a tracking device in his tooth. “The trouble with going to Uncle Lou’s was he was always drugging you,” Slurps notes. Indeed. The Hawaii of the book is not a place any tourist would recognize. Honolulu is a “dirty, coastal backwater” stinking of fish heads and featuring in its town square “a bronze statue of the discoverer of Hawaii, Sir Edmund Honolulu III,” not to mention lots of bums and prostitutes. This Hawaii has its own currency, the paleeka, and the bars serve bowls of dried geckos in lieu of beer nuts. The beaches showcase rusty cars that have washed ashore. Slurps' observations are epic throughout: "A scary-looking transvestite put flower necklaces around our necks and said, 'Aloha.' Someone told me later that aloha is a curse word." Things take a turn for the much worse when Slurps acquires a hula-girl souvenir that in fact turns out to be cursed. (See Bobby Brady in the 1972 Brady Bunch Hawaii episodes.) Disasters ensue. The journey into the jungle in search of the Golden Monkey finds Slurps and Don battling pirates, getting hit with blow darts and meeting a native woman that Slurps hits on using his favorite pickup line, "what's your religion?" The doomed expedition culminates in a riot, complete with a pitchfork-wielding mob, inside a national park. It's Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness meets the 2008 film Tropic Thunder. Ridiculous fun through and through. You have to love a guy who goes out looking for hiking supplies and comes back with bottles of scotch and packs of cigarettes. A true outdoorsman, he.
The best comedic novel in years. Handey is a master. Fans will be quoting lines from this book for a long time. If you like the work of George Saunders, this one's for you.
A decade of war in Chechnya informs this multivalent, heartfelt debut, filled with broken families, lost limbs and valiant efforts to find scraps of hope and dignity.
Marra’s vision of Chechnya in the years following the fall of the Soviet Union is inevitably mordant: religious and separatist battles have left the roadways studded with land mines, the buildings pockmarked with bullets and many residents disappeared and tortured. The characters Marra brings to this landscape, though, are thankfully lacking in pieties about the indomitability of the human spirit. At the core of the story is Sonja, a longtime doctor with a flinty, seen-it-all demeanor who, as the story starts in 2004, has taken in an unlikely pair: Akhmed, a barely competent but well-intentioned doctor who is protecting Havaa, whose father has been abducted. Akhmed is quickly put to work learning to saw off shrapnel-flayed legs, and as the novel shifts back and forth in time, each of their stories deepens. The most affecting and harrowing subplot involves Sonja’s sister Natasha, who is missing as the story begins; we quickly learn the various indignities she suffered in the years before, forced into prostitution and addicted to heroin but later recovered enough to help deliver babies alongside her sister. Marra has carefully threaded his characters to work an everybody-is-connected theme, and some of those connections ultimately feel contrived. But he’s a careful, intelligent stylist who makes the most of his omniscient perspective; one of his favorite tricks is to project minor characters’ fates into the future; by revealing their deaths, he exposes how shabbily war treats everybody and gives the living an additional dose of pathos. The grimness is persistent, but Marra relays it with unusual care and empathy for a first-timer.
A somber, sensitive portrait of how lives fray and bind again in chaotic circumstances.
An enrapturing debut novel that toys with magical realism while delivering a fresh fable.
One night, Ruth hears a tiger in her home. This reminds her of her childhood in Fiji, where her parents were missionaries, though there were no tigers in Fiji. Nor are there tigers where Ruth abides, alone in a seaside home on the southern coast of Australia, her children grown and living in other countries. The morning after Ruth hears the tiger, Frida appears as if from the sea. She explains that she is a government “carer.” A spot opened up, she says, and Ruth was on their waiting list. Ruth is not sure she needs a carer—she’s only 75—but Frida looks like she’s from Fiji, and a few hours a day couldn’t hurt. Initially, it seems that Frida is exactly what Ruth needs: a no-nonsense, larger-than-life presence who keeps Ruth company and her floors shining and sand-free. Ruth doesn’t hear the tiger again for some time. But other strange things begin to happen, things that test Ruth’s sense of reality with increasing frequency and, eventually, give rise to an unshakable foreboding. Ruth has reasons not to trust Frida. We have reasons not to trust her either, some that will be explained and some that will remain a mystery. McFarlane’s rendering of Ruth’s interior is quiet and exacting, and she builds suspense so gently that the danger is, at first, hardly noticeable. Frida, seen through Ruth’s eyes, is as compelling as she is enigmatic. By the time Ruth hears the tiger again, she and Frida are allied in a spiral of love and dependency that will dictate both their futures.
A pleasurable novel, with turns of plot and phrase both startling and elegant.
The world, a community and an elderly couple are confused and disconcerted when people who have died inexplicably come back, including the couple’s 8-year-old son, whom they lost nearly 50 years ago.
No one understands why people who died are coming back. There’s no rhyme or reason, just a sudden reappearance of a massive population who were dead and are now alive, nearly exactly as they were the minute before they died. Some died a hundred years ago, some died 50 years ago; some are young children, some are senile old women and men. Considered by some the work of the devil, by others a miracle, the confounding reality is that an already struggling planet must abruptly support a staggering influx of beings who have typical human needs: food, water, shelter, sanitation. Globally, the cataclysmic event of their return brings about a spectrum of responses that reflects many facets of faith, spirituality, and the best and worst of human nature. Individually, many of the living must decide whether or not to accommodate the people they loved as they return to a world that has left them behind. Written mainly from the perspective of Lucille and Harold Hargrave—an elderly couple whose 8-year-old son, Jacob, returns to them decades after he died—and taking place in a small Southern town that becomes a regional coordination center for handling those who come back, this book offers a beautifully written and emotionally astute look at our world gone awry. At the center is a startling and disturbing idea, especially given how many of us wish we could have one more chance to see the ones we’ve loved and lost to death: What if many of them came back, all at once?
Poet and debut author Mott has written a breathtaking novel that navigates emotional minefields with realism and grace.
A mystery about a missing girl and the ghosts she leaves behind.
One summer evening, teenagers Val and June float on a rubber raft out into the bay off Brooklyn’s Red Hook section. Only Val returns, her near-dead body washed upon the shore. But Val can’t seem to tell anyone what happened to them or why June disappeared without a trace. For weeks afterward, the Lebanese shopkeeper Fadi tries to keep his customers informed about developments and neighborhood rumors in the case. Meanwhile, Jonathan, an ex-Julliard student turned jingle writer and music teacher, may be getting too emotionally close to Val. The novel’s focus isn’t on the police investigation, but on the missing girl’s effect on her neighbors and friends. Who saw Val and June take the boat out? Can June possibly be alive? Can young Cree tell what he knows without being automatically accused of a crime since he’s a black man? The book is rich with characters and mood and will make readers feel like they’ve walked the streets of Red Hook. Everyone in the story deserves a measure of sympathy, from the girls on the raft to the shoplifting teenager to the pathetic uncle who won’t tell anyone anything for free. Red Hook itself feels like a character—hard-worn, isolated from the rest of New York, left behind and forgotten.
A terrific story in the vein of Dennis Lehane's fiction.
Take a dollop of Alfred Hitchcock, a dollop of Patricia Highsmith, throw in some Great Gatsby flourishes, and the result is Rindell’s debut, a pitch-black comedy about a police stenographer accused of murder in 1920s Manhattan.
Typing criminals’ confessions, Rose admires the precinct’s conservative, mustachioed middle-aged sergeant while she is critical of his superior, the lieutenant detective Frank, who is closer to her in age and a clean-shaven dandy in his white spats. An orphan raised by nuns, Rose lives in a boardinghouse and leads a prim spinster life far removed from the flappers and increasingly liberated women of the “Roaring Twenties.” She seems destined to a life of routine solitude until a new typist is hired. Odalie wears her hair bobbed, dresses with panache and lives in a posh hotel. Rose voices disapproval at first, but she is clearly drawn to Odalie, even obsessed with her. When Odalie invites her to share her hotel rooms, Rose moves right in. Soon, Rose is accompanying Odalie on her adventures, which include bootlegging, among other vices. Sometimes Rose borrows Odalie’s clothes, sometimes she runs errands for Odalie. But who is Odalie? Where does her money come from? And if she has money, why does she work as a police stenographer? At a house party on Long Island, a young man from Newport thinks he recognizes Odalie as the debutante once engaged to his cousin, but she denies knowing him. By the time he turns up dead, Rose has been sucked into Odalie’s world so deeply that their identities have merged. Who is using whom? Recalling her recent life, revealing only what she wants to reveal in bits and pieces, Rose begins her narration archly with off-putting curlicues she gradually discards. She is tart, judgmental, self-righteous and self-justifying. She is also viciously astute. Whether she’s telling the truth is another matter.
A deliciously addictive, cinematically influenced page-turner, both comic and provocative, about the nature of guilt and innocence within the context of social class in a rapidly changing culture.
Polished debut fiction, from Australian author Simsion, about a brilliant but emotionally challenged geneticist who develops a questionnaire to screen potential mates but finds love instead. The book won the 2012 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript.
“I became aware of applause. It seemed natural. I had been living in the world of romantic comedy and this was the final scene. But it was real.” So Don Tillman, our perfectly imperfect narrator and protagonist, tells us. While he makes this observation near the end of the book, it comes as no surprise—this story plays the rom-com card from the first sentence. Don is challenged, almost robotic. He cannot understand social cues, barely feels emotion and can’t stand to be touched. Don’s best friends are Gene and Claudia, psychologists. Gene brought Don as a postdoc to the prestigious university where he is now an associate professor. Gene is a cad, a philanderer who chooses women based on nationality—he aims to sleep with a woman from every country. Claudia is tolerant until she’s not. Gene sends Rosie, a graduate student in his department, to Don as a joke, a ringer for the Wife Project. Finding her woefully unsuitable, Don agrees to help the beautiful but fragile Rosie learn the identity of her biological father. Pursuing this Father Project, Rosie and Don collide like particles in an atom smasher: hilarity, dismay and carbonated hormones ensue. The story lurches from one set piece of deadpan nudge-nudge, wink-wink humor to another: We laugh at, and with, Don as he tries to navigate our hopelessly emotional, nonliteral world, learning as he goes. Simsion can plot a story, set a scene, write a sentence, finesse a detail. A pity more popular fiction isn’t this well-written. If you liked Australian author Toni Jordan's Addition (2009), with its math-obsessed, quirky heroine, this book is for you.
A terrific debut novel about the mystical and erotic power of art.
At the center of the center, as it were, is a hypothetical painting by the 19th-century artist J.M.W. Turner, one in which he brings all his genius to bear. The title of this painting is “The Center of the World,” and it features an astonishingly sensual portrait of Helen of Troy and Paris, with whom Helen eloped. The picture is so scandalous to 19th-century mores that it’s hidden away and believed to have been burned, but it turns up in 2003, of all places in a barn in the Adirondacks. It’s a testament to Van Essen’s control that he makes this scenario plausible, for it turns out that Cornelius Rhinebeck, the owner of a neighboring estate, was a rich captain of industry who, in the early-20th century, amassed a collection of European art, some of it acquired through questionable channels. Henry Leiden, who finds the painting, desultorily heads a small foundation and feels his life, and especially his relationship with his wife, is at an impasse, but the painting exerts an almost otherworldly influence on him. Van Essen creates a complicated narrative structure involving Leiden, Charles Grant (who posed for Paris when Turner was engaged in the painting at Petworth, the estate of the Third Earl of Egremont), Mrs. Spencer (Egremont’s mistress and the model for Helen) and the mysterious Mr. Bryce, head of a firm that arranges art sales and an aesthete who desperately wants to track down the elusive Turner painting. Actually, this masterpiece winds up turning everyone who comes in contact with it into an aesthete—and it also seems to have an almost miraculous power as an aphrodisiac.
Van Essen writes gracefully and makes accessible the issue of art as transcendence.
Can’t we all just get along? Perhaps yes, if we’re supernatural beings from one side or another of the Jewish-Arab divide.
In her debut novel, Wecker begins with a juicy premise: At the dawn of the 20th century, the shtetls of Europe and half of “Greater Syria” are emptying out, their residents bound for New York or Chicago or Detroit. One aspirant, “a Prussian Jew from Konin, a bustling town to the south of Danzig,” is an unpleasant sort, a bit of a bully, arrogant, unattractive, but with enough loose gelt in his pocket to commission a rabbi-without-a-portfolio to build him an idol with feet of clay—and everything else of clay, too. The rabbi, Shaalman, warns that the ensuing golem—in Wecker’s tale, The Golem—is meant to be a slave and “not for the pleasures of a bed,” but he creates her anyway. She lands in Manhattan with less destructive force than Godzilla hit Tokyo, but even so, she cuts a strange figure. So does Ahmad, another slave bottled up—literally—and shipped across the water to a New York slum called Little Syria, where a lucky Lebanese tinsmith named Boutros Arbeely rubs a magic flask in just the right way and—shazam!—the jinni (genie) appears. Ahmad is generally ticked off by events, while The Golem is burdened with the “instinct to be of use.” Naturally, their paths cross, the most unnatural of the unnaturalized citizens of Lower Manhattan—and great adventures ensue, for Shaalman is in the wings, as is a shadowy character who means no good when he catches wind of the supernatural powers to be harnessed. Wecker takes the premise and runs with it, and though her story runs on too long for what is in essence a fairy tale, she writes skillfully, nicely evoking the layers of alienness that fall upon strangers in a strange land.
Two lessons: Don’t discount a woman just because she’s made of clay, and consider your wishes carefully should you find that magic lamp.
In this astonishing first novel, 7-year-old, physically disabled Jess reviews her brief, tumultuous life from heaven via films provided by The Assembler, a supreme being who, for mysterious reasons, declined to give her thumbs, several bones, a whole heart and the gift of hearing.
For all her defects, hers is a miraculous childhood. With the loving support of her Catholic family, and following several surgeries, she is able to become a vital, expressive, delightful girl. But for all the care she receives from her mother, Kate, and father, Ford—and all of the doting of Joe Cassidy, Ford's bighearted post office co-worker, who was driven to drink by the loss of his wife and young son in an accident—she is darkly shadowed by fate. The events leading to her death are told with an exquisite attention to detail, emotional and physical. The subsequent narrative, which turns on a wrongful death suit filed by her parents against a cardiologist who failed to spot the vascular anomaly that caused Jess to stop breathing, unfolds with the tension of good detective fiction. Callously investigated for parental neglect, Ford and his pregnant wife are forced to attend parenting sessions along with child abusers and drug addicts who ridicule and assault them. They sign on with a personal injury firm in pursuit of justice, only to have the profit-minded lawyers violate Jess' memory by building a case that portrays her as helpless and pathetic. The Assembler, who has a sardonic streak, keeps Jess in the dark about where these posthumous events are leading, but she isn't afraid to call his number. The low-key conclusion is a bit of a letdown after all that has gone before, but Virginia-based author Wientzen, a pediatrician, imparts so much about the preciousness of life and the power of forgiveness that this is a minor shortcoming.
Boasting a fearlessly self-possessed child narrator, this is one of those books you stop what you're doing to finish, take a breath to ponder its profundities, and start again.